Pathways to Victory

Building multiple balanced tactical pathways to victory

This is a mouth full, a challenge all board game designers face, and a goal to aspire to! Game design is a complex process. The type of game you are trying to make might have just one easy goal or path to victory and there is nothing wrong with that type of game. However, some game designers are trying to build grand strategy games. These are not better only different from other games. The main difference between these games (from one point of view) is, there target audience! Players looking for a challenge in tactical strategy building.

In this case, we are dealing more with the type of game that suffers from constant headaches from working on balancing all the many mechanics or trying desperately to figure out how to use some mathematical formula for calculating the probability of some combination of dice. These games are sometimes component or mechanic heavy games that have longer rulebooks and longer play times.

So, with that being said; what do I mean by the opening line about pathways?

Building one single victory condition into the game helps players better understand what it takes to win. This becomes fuzzier in the mind of players if there are many different victory conditions. Here are some ways of looking at the issue and none are better or worse just different: (listed from easiest to hardest to design)

  • Building one pathway to one unique victory condition (1 to 1)
  • Building many unique pathways to one unique victory condition (Any to 1)
  • Building many interlocking pathways to many interlocking victory conditions (Any to Any)
  • Building one unique pathway to each corresponding unique victory condition (Any 1 to 1)

Each of these has its own flavor and the one you want to put in the game needs to be firm in your mind as you design the game. Three and Four are arguably the same thing, the main difference is whether or not the paths cross and affect each other”. Here is some explanation of how each work:

1 to 1: This would be like a racing game there is just one way to win the game. This is like Snakes and Ladders or Candy Land. It is often a literal path in the game that all player must travel to reach the goal at the end. For the most part, players have only one main type of action to move along the path (but not always). This is not to be confused a scoring track.

Any to 1: In this player 1 can say. “I am going to focus on getting and selling beer to the pirates” and player 2 might say “I am going to focus on attacking the pirates”. In this, both players are after the pirate gold and the player with the most wins. The same end goal is reached by any of the pathways you build for the players. This is by far the most common type of game because it includes many actions to earn some type of “points” that win the game. These game will also “most of the time” be the games that have a score track.

Any to Any: This involves some of the things above to some extent. If we add more victory conditions to the Any to 1 type of game we can get an Any to Any game but it can also quickly become hard to manage. These are games that advertise the “many” victory conditions as a selling point of the game. Games where players can win by military force, economics, diplomacy, and other such factors of gameplay. One thing that sets these games apart from the Any 1 to 1 is that each of the goals affects (or is connected to) the other goals in many ways.

Any 1 to 1: This would involve many different unrelated resources or actions that can be gathered or accomplished in order to win. Also, this might be a game where players have a unique victory condition they alone need to fulfill but the goal they have this game comes from a pool of many choices or is given at random. Each path is unique both in what the players do and what they need to have in order to win. In some ways, this is just like having many “1 to 1” games inside the same game. Each player is still racing to finish but each player is on an independent path. This type of game is less common. The concept for it is a little counter-intuitive to the way we want to compete together on the same playing field. Variants of this type of logic are useful in building paths for solo games and co-operative games with variable player powers. You also see this as “extra or optional” ways to win in some games that are normally otherwise only score based.

Note: The idea that it is all or none of the paths that can or can’t ever affect the others is not the most important thing that separates the types, it is just one main thing that can. Some ways of drawing lines between games are just blurry… because we are people and there are far more types of games than I am making categories for.

Take the example I used from the Any to 1. Now if player two attacks the pirates they capture a pirate. If player two can capture 4 pirates before player one can sell enough beer to them they win. Everything about the game changes and the goals are now themselves part of the conflict. There are fewer pirates to sell beer to every time a player captures a pirate. It is because the paths are interlocking or interconnected that makes it more complicated to balance. Now this would be it is an Any to Any game.

Example: The “Any to 1” game of Scythe by Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games.

Let’s take the game of Scythe and push or change how it was designed and shift it between some of these types to see how they work. If you don’t know or understand how this game is played. You can watch this 32 min video or “trust” my short example below before moving on:

Video on Scythe by Watch It Played

In Scythe: There are ten independent objectives for the players to earn stars, but once any player has earned six stars the game ends. The player who ended the game does not always win the game. The overall goal is to have the most coins at the end. Based on the end state of the game, players earn a different number of coins for each star. So while the player who ended the game has six stars to score, the stars another player has might be worth more based on the end state of the game. Also, stars are not the only thing players get coins for at the end of the game, so there are also three other factors that lead to the end game coins in addition to any coins earned by actions in the game.

If you played Scythe where the player who earned any star first was the winner, you would change it into an Any 1 to 1 type of game. The problem is that if you did this you would break the game.

Because earning some of the stars is easier than earning others, that easy star would be the only strategy to win and all the other ways of earning stars would become useless to the players. This makes the Any 1 to 1 (in my mind) the hardest game type to balance.

If you played Scythe where actions that help a player to earn one type of star made getting another type of star harder for the other players (and changed many other small things), this would change it into an Any to Any type of game.

This example is far from perfect but I hope that it helps you to see the way the main goal of the game and the path to reach it are very different and can be designed in many ways. Keep in mind that complexity and depth are not the same things. Having many paths that interact may work well in some games and not as well in others. But just the fact that there is more than one path does not in and of itself add depth but for sure it does add complexity.

How the raw number of choices a player has to sort through vs. how meaningful each of those choices is toward advancing a player’s strategy is what gives a game depth. If a game has so many choices that a player cannot find the meaningful ones for their strategy they will not find the bottom of your game’s depth. By contrast, if you limit a player’s choices to only a few simple by meaningful ones, you might make it too easy to always know the best move every turn. This puts a player on auto pilot and they don’t have to think at all during the game. You could say that they find the the bottom of your game’s depth just by stepping in and stubbing their toe!

Building Paths

Now that we understand how paths to victory fit into games, we need to first select the type we want in the game. This choice is normally easy for most game design and only becomes more complicated as you get into designing heavier strategy games.

For the sake of argument, we will not look at building the old school roll & move single path to victory game. Let’s just move on to the most common type found in games. Let’s do that by talking about how the any to 1 it is formed.

The goal of the player is to win! But the thing we will count to show that they have won is something you need to design and name. This will be called the scoring method  and it can be almost anything. When you are trying to design what victory points should be called think about the core ideas for the theme of the game and see if you can find something other than just Victory Points or Gold or Money. This is not to say that those names are bad, just a bit overused and if you don’t think of anything else then, by all means, use one of them.

Try to think of things that can be obtained in many different ways.

Villain Power! Why do the players have to win by having the most? A way of tracking what the heroes have done to weaken (take away from) the power of a villain? Taking territory, killing the minions, looting resources, arming the weak and helpless. This can’t be boss villain’s health because of the “race to the end”, this would convert the score track into a health meter. Then other aspects of villain “power” are not on the same “path” and damaging the boss. Remember this is about many things leading to the same thing.

Hero Fame! The highest fame at the end wins. Players might get “fame” from completing quests, challenges, killing foes, owning land, having the most followers, exploring the most areas. the list is nearly endless.

Happy Customers! This can take many forms, farmers feeding the most townspeople, most damsels in distress rescued.

As you can see this all comes down to how to name the thing. This is more for the sake of having a clear theme. Having a more descriptive name representing your game’s victory points can help you to design better paths to reach the type of victory your theme has to offer.  Another way to say this is the paths will be more visible to you because of the perspective you gain from the process of naming the victory points.

In the end, you can go back to gold or victory points for the “ease of use” if your target audience needs that more common name as a hook.  But the design will benefit from you taking the time to think about how players might gain “X named” thing to win.

Once you have the types of paths that work with your theme all mapped out, you can start to think about what mechanics can be used to make each path interesting. This will inform (or shape and mold) the mechanics and to help you make them seem more natural to the players.

Going back to the “Pirates & Beer” game example.

If the players are in a game world where their actions have an effect on the elements of your theme it can feel more real to them. Game mechanics for getting and selling beer to pirates are much different from mechanics for fighting pirates (or they should be). One would think that fighting pirates might have dice rolling combat, and selling beer could be more of a pick up & deliver. Both make the players go to where the pirates are located on the game board and both might involve some type of risk. Each pirate clan might have one type of beer they like and one type they hate. The weapon you take with you to fight the pirates might work great against some and not so great against others. (if a rock-paper-scissors mechanic or logic is used in some way).

The point is, the type of actions that build the path to victory should fit the theme and the mechanic.  When these two things work hand-in-hand with how players expect them to the game will flow better and they will get more immersion from the experience. Each path might be more or less random, make players move or go places, buy things, build things. All based on the theme and mechanics of the game.

Because all of the paths go to the same place, you have the freedom to make some harder to complete but give a greater reward in the end. More risk does not just mean more random, but adding random is one way to add risk.  There are many other factors to consider as well, not just theme and mechanics.  One might be the genre of game you are trying to make.

There are many ways to approach the idea of building paths. Many games can be made to fit into more than one theme. This is because instead of building around one theme you can also build around a core mechanic(s). Many times this is why a game is called “X type of game”. A pick up & deliver game stands independent of the themed things being delivered. You can build around any core mechanics and then paint on a theme later.

Don’t get wrapped up in just theme or mechanics, because some just work better than others in some genres.  If you are basing you design on a type or genre of game, players will feel like something is wrong with the game if you add or change too many things that are commonly found in that type or genre of game.  Expectation management is needed on some level to deal with such things.  Keeping things simple is always a good choice in such matters. This does not stop you from designing a game without a genre in mind.

Think of all the ways you can to form such ideas and then think of them as just pieces in box of Legos, you have all of them to play with but the thing you are building right now might not use them all.

Design Tip: There is no right way to do things when building a game. But there is a right way for you to do it! This is your method of game design and it is not the same as the game theories you know or understand. This just means that if it is easier for you visualize the theme, do it that way. If you can picture a great way to get something fun out of a mechanic or set of mechanics then build them first and add theme later.

No matter how you do things, remember that each path needs to be equally as good as every other path or else the other paths might not be worth the player’s time to try and use. Each path needs to be carefully balanced against the rest to ensure they have the same “costs to benefits”, but they don’t all need to have the same “risk to reward” ratio.

This is a very large topic, with many other things to consider, but we can get into this more as time allows.

Parting thoughts:

Do players know they are winning? Do other players know who is winning? Do you want players to know? Will there be player elimination? Do you want it to be a close game right up till the end?

All things to think about as you choose how to build your:

“Multiple balanced tactical pathways to victory”

This is intended only as “Food for Thought”. Please let me know what you think, I am by no means the authority on this subject so any input from other designers is greatly appreciated.

“Remember to think outside the box so your games will fit inside!”


“I want to help you embrace the bright hope for your future.”


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